IN NASSAU, a red 1970 Gold Leaf Lotus Élan, zooms up the hill. A chequered flag waves and a yellow 1957 Ferrari 500 can be spotted up ahead, with a blue Aston Martin DB5 shimmering in the tropical sun in the distance. Someone who looks like Sean Connery is shaking hands with spectators.
It could be a dream. But this is Bahamas Speed Week 2012 in the Bahamian capital. The pace of life can be slow in this part of the world, with the fastest thing on the road the odd lizard or “potcake”, the local name for a mongrel dog. But for seven days in November the smell of burning rubber, the revving of engines and the popping of champagne corks complements the aroma of frying fish and the rhythm of steel pan bands – and things really speed up
The original Bahamas Speed Week ran in Nassau from 1954 to 1966, traditionally in the first week of December and brought together stars from the US and Europe in a high octane end of season play off which has, as of last year, returned to take its place as an annual event in the motoring calendar.
In 2012 a group of dedicated classic car owners crossed the Atlantic, bringing with them pristine Aston Martins, Ferraris, Porsches and Maseratis, which they assembled at Arawak Cay against a back drop of colourful shacks, turquoise sea and huge cruise ships.
The opening ceremony of Speed Week took place at the cay with a Le Mans style start, but as a concession to 82-year-old Sir Stirling Moss, who took part in the original Speed Weeks and patronised the Revival for the second time in 2012, the drivers walked rather than ran to their cars. Sir Stirling, however, showed the crowd that he is still a deft hand at the wheel of his 1950s-era OSCA FS372 sport racer.
Jay Michaels, moderator at the opening ceremony, has compared Speed Week to other racing events such as LeMans, Grand Prix and Indianapolis 500. But in Nassau things are done in a slightly different way. Before the wheels were allowed to spin, the cars and their drivers were blessed by the Rector of the capital’s St Francis Xavier Catholic cathedral.
This year a Bocar XP-5, a Cooper Monaco CM/4/59 and a DeLorean DMC 12, among others, sparkled in the Bahamian sunshine, all brought by ship from the UK, the USA, and Europe.
The cars are the stars here and all have their stories. Chief executive of Bayford Oil Group Jonathan Turner carried off the Best Car in Show award for his Jaguar C Type. His is the second name on the magnificent solid silver trophy, the first being Wal-Mart chairman Rob Walton who won the cup last year with a $7m Maserati 450S. Austrian Andreas Mohringer brought his lovingly preserved 1953 red Ferrari 375 MM Pinin Farina Spyder, the only one in the world.
But Speed Week isn’t just about rich businessmen. This year the classic cars were joined by a group of Formula Kart Stars from the UK, with eight cadets ranging in age from nine to 12 years old, and eight others aged 16 up, who were dubbed “the Formula 1 stars of the future”. Lewis Hamilton, among others, started his career this way and Bahamas Speed Week Revival event director David McLoughlin said the sight of some of Britain’s finest young kart racers from Essex and Kent could provide inspiration for Bahamas’ own karting future.
Historically, they included everything from Minis to Chaparrals, Ferraris and Maseratis.
In 2011 and 2012, period sports and GT cars capable of running in a Tour Auto-type road event were on show, and road cars from the 1950s to the present day drove essentially the same route around the island as their predecessors.
This year’s 40 entries reflected the wide variety of cars that competed in the old Speed Week and, altogether, $100m worth of cars were entered this year.
Even if you don’t know your Astons from your Austins, Nassau is the gateway to the Bahamas and worth visiting in its own right.
There are over 700 Bahamian islands, ranging from tiny uninhabited cays to Great Providence itself, home to Nassau and its glitzy neighbour Paradise Island.
There’s plenty to discover here and Nassau itself is one of the coolest capitals in the region. Not only has it got a 1970s disco number named after it (Funky Nassau), it also has connections with the infamous Pirate Blackbeard and various royalty, and is home to Stuart Cove, where Sean Connery learned to scuba dive for his 007 underwater scenes.
The Bahamas have been used extensively as locations for Bond films. Much of Casino Royale was filmed on Paradise Island and it was no coincidence that the Bahamas Speed Week Concours d’Elegance line up took place at the exclusive Lyford Cay Club, which just happens to be home to Sir Sean, who obligingly joined the drivers for lunch.
Paradise Island doesn’t quite live up to its heavenly name; the huge towers of Atlantis dominate the skyline, with its casinos and marina filled with super yachts, but Nassau has an old colonial charm that is worth seeking out and is much better explored on foot than at 100 mph.
Many aspects of former British rule remain, despite the Bahamas gaining independence in 1973. It is not unusual to walk down the main Bay Street and see a barrister heading for court in formal wig and gown, or to be greeted by a policeman in crisp white tunic and black pants with a red stripe.
Speed Week is bringing a little old fashioned glamour back to Nassau and, as it was back in the 1950s, the buzz comes from the partying as much as the racing. On the terrace of Government House, VIPs and car owners mingled to drink champagne and look out to sea as the aristocracy may have done in the days when the Duke and Duchess of Windsor entertained here after the abdication of Edward VIII.
(To remove him from the public eye, the Duke was made Governor of The Bahamas).
In front of Government House is a jaunty statue of Christopher Columbus and other reminders of Nassau’s history are visible at Fort Charlotte, built in 1788, which has spectacular views out to Paradise Island and the harbour.
Across the road from Government House is Graycliff Hotel, one of Nassau’s most famous mansions and a gathering spot for notables including Winston Churchill and Lord Louis Mountbatten. Italian owners Enrico and Anna Maria Garzaroli turned this former 18th century home into an elegant hotel with what is described as the only five star restaurant in the Caribbean. Surprisingly for the tropics, Graycliff has one of the world’s finest wine cellars: activities include cigar rolling and culinary experiences from the likes of its new chocolatier brand.
No-one can come to the Bahamas without trying conch. Pronounced “konk”, this tasty mollusc is the most famous Bahamian delicacy eaten in salads and soups all over the islands. Conch shacks are found at Arawak Cay and throughout Nassau.
Frankie goes Bananas is a lively newcomer at the cay with live music, a martini bar and a menu that has a modern take on traditional dishes, including delicious steamed conch.
Upscale dining establishments like Graycliff are joined around Bay Street by elegant waterfront restaurants such as Lucianos.
Dining at the glamorous eating establishments in Atlantis can be expensive, but as the portions tend to be huge, there is no need to over order.
PEOPLE TO PEOPLE
For a more authentic experience, Bahamians welcome visitors into their homes and even offer a guiding hand to those who want to see the islands through local eyes.
I visited Nassau resident Steven and his wife to be Janice at their home on the east of the island, where they laid on local food such as grouper, plantains and chicken. Drinks included the deceptively innocent-looking Sky Juice (a potent cocktail of gin, coconut and condensed milk). They even provided music in their back yard, performed by a local band.
NEED TO KNOW
British Airways operates a direct non-stop service from Heathrow to Nassau, five days a week for £387 each way or up to £804 return for weekend flights.
Staying in Nassau
Situated on downtown Nassau’s only private beach and the site of Old Fort Nassau, the British Colonial Hilton has undergone a multi-million dollar renovation throughout all areas of the hotel. Rooms from £170
Graycliff Hotel has deluxe rooms from £236
Bahamas Flavour offers seven nights at the Graycliff Hotel, Nassau in a deluxe room from £1,699 per person with return BA flights from Heathrow
Valid for travel until 28 February 2013. Subject to availability
0870 066997 bahamasflavour.co.uk
For further information on speed week go to bahamasspeedweekrevival.com
For further information on the Bahamas see bahamas.co.uk